Blue Spurs knew it had something special even before it won the Partners in Innovation category at the 2017 Amazon Web Services (AWS) City on a Cloud Innovation Challenge in June, which recognizes governments embracing innovation and the partner agencies helping them move forward.
The Fredericton, NB-based company was co-founded by current CEO Mike LeBlanc in 2012 as a way to modernize businesses with custom cloud solutions, but has since become synonymous with Blue Kit, its low-code Internet of Things (IoT) educational starter program that helps middle and high school students understand the fundamentals of IoT.
First created to help Blue Spurs’ customers learn and make sense of the new tools that could optimize their organizations, the Kit transitioned into an educational tool after a conversation between LeBlanc and the New Brunswick provincial government.
“The Blue Kit had an education slant to it from the very beginning, but when we started discussing the project with the province of New Brunswick, they said they wanted to move the needle on digital literacy in the school system,” LeBlanc tells IT World Canada. “We thought our Kit would be the perfect way to introduce kids to new technologies like IoT, and also give them a hands-on opportunity to create real-life IoT projects. [The government] loved the idea, so we customized the Blue Kit for the education market and it’s now being augmented into existing curriculum. Basically, through a series of interactive lessons, students learn more about IoT and build increasingly challenging IoT projects right in the classroom.”
New Brunswick may be one of Canada’s smallest provinces, both by population and by land mass, but it’s taking giant steps toward digital transformation that puts it ahead of the pack. With new and innovative technologies like IoT and the cloud taking the world by storm, and significantly enhancing cyber threats along the way, the province has placed a special importance on increasing digital literacy within its borders.
And as the successful Blue Spurs partnership indicates, it’s focused on educating the youngest of its residents.
“The plan is to expand the deployment this program to more schools and to younger groups in elementary schools. IoT may seem to be beyond that age, but if you look at how much technology they use already, it makes sense. This is a really good tool to harness that interest and expose them to practical applications and the art of what is possible, like voice-controlled lights and things like that,” LeBlanc adds.
Cementing its place in cybersecurity
In addition to teaching young people how to harness new technologies, New Brunswick is also emphasizing education around the dangers of an increasingly digital world, becoming the first province to develop a strategy on cybersecurity and cyber innovation in 2016.
“When you think of innovation, you think of big hubs in Canada like Toronto and Montreal, but New Brunswick is not all that different,” explains New Brunswick-based cybersecurity expert Allen Dillon. “We were one of the first to provide fibre connectivity and high-speed data in North America, the University of New Brunswick’s (UNB) computer science faculty was the first of its kind in Canada, and we’ve had plenty of world-class companies get their start here, like Q1 Labs, a security software company started by UNB staff members that was bought by IBM in 2011.”
The province’s cybersecurity initiative, CyberNB, was born amidst this innovative atmosphere. The strategic growth plan is led by Dillon and aims to establish New Brunswick as the epicentre for cybersecurity in Canada, create high value cybersecurity-related jobs, promote international collaboration in the industry, and create a new incubator dedicated to fostering start-ups and tech development in cybersecurity. Its educational aspect hopes to generate public awareness of cyber threats.
“I left my previous CEO position at a cybersecurity company to work with the New Brunswick government to create CyberNB because a strategic framework around cybersecurity is crucial,” Dillon says. “New technology and innovation is great, but doing so without any security structure or agenda is to our peril. We need to make a more secure and robust Internet for Canadians, and in doing that, create an economic opportunity for our province and the country as a whole. CyberNB is spawning innovation as well as digital awareness and responsibility in the context of security.”
Fostering the entrepreneurial spirit
And it’s not alone. New Brunswick is known as one of the most entrepreneurial provinces in Canada, Dillon says, and this has spurred many security-oriented startups, like Beauceron Security.
Cybersecurity expert David Shipley started the company in 2015 during his time researching at UNB after he realized how little time he had to implement a cybersecurity awareness training program for students and peers while doing his job of monitoring and protecting the institute from daily cyber risks like malware and phishing attacks.
“We were getting hit by half a million attacks per week by the time I left UNB, and there weren’t enough hours in the day to train people and push through awareness programs, or respond to incidents, let alone strategically plan for future threats,” Shipley tells IT World Canada.
Beauceron was created to deliver a cloud-based platform that simplifies how organizations understand cyber threats and helps them take action to reduce risks. It moves the cybersecurity conversation from an IT-centric problem to a human-centric problem, the company says, and automates many of the routine tasks needed to educate people and entrench ideas of accountability.
“We started looking at how we could build a tool that can help with cyber security from a people, process, culture, and technology point of view. How do we automate things like getting people to take education courses and do the phishing simulations, and how do we determine between attackers and defenders in a way that’s easy to understand?” Shipley questions.
UNB was massively supportive of what started out as a personal project, he adds, saying that he was given access to facilities after hours and eventually accepted into the university’s accelerator incubator program, which presented them with a grant and office space. UNB also agreed to be the company’s beta customer.
“UNB is incredibly supportive of startups. They have all these great programs that actually help staff members start their own companies, which seems kind of bizarre because you’re encouraging some of your talented staff to be innovative and potentially leave, but it’s a great atmosphere to be in,” Shipley continues. “Even New Brunswick as a whole; it has a pioneering nature to it and I’m very grateful to Fredericton’s mayor, Michael O’Brien, who’s always receptive to new technology like ours that can potentially make a difference.”
In June, Beauceron closed a half million investment round, he says, and it’s already grown to have 15 customers across North America.
Promoting New Brunswick as a destination of choice
Moving forward, Blue Spurs’ LeBlanc wants to see people and organizations in New Brunswick better promote the innovation happening in the region.
“Everyone says that [people in New Brunswick] don’t yell loud enough about their successes, especially compared to those in Ontario, Quebec, or BC – the traditional ‘innovation hubs’ of Canada, and that’s been a common theme here,” he says. “Startup accelerators and incubators like Planet Hatch are great champions of the province externally, but it always seems to be an uphill battle to get the word out beyond Atlantic Canada, so we need to get better at that and shout a little louder.”
He adds that after having built several successful companies here, he wouldn’t think about starting a business anywhere else.
“The talent pool, the startup ecosystem, and the infrastructure here are all amazing, and we can make a difference on a global scale from here easily. There’s a lot of great mentorship available as well,” LeBlanc says.
CyberNB’s Dillon echoes these thoughts, saying that New Brunswick is the perfect place to start a business.
“We have nuclear power, traditional power systems, big industry players, international borders, ports, terminals for oil and gas, highways, and cities just like the rest of Canada, but we have it in a nimbler space. New Brunswick is a small, bilingual, and beautiful community where it’s easy to make connections, move on projects quickly, and talk to people, even in government leadership positions, and that’s our greatest advantage,” he points out.
It even has the financial support to foster startups with the New Brunswick Small Business Investor Tax Credit, which helps investors receive up to 50 per cent of their investments in small businesses back in a tax credit. For Beauceron’s Shipley, this has been extremely motivating for investors and helps new companies like his find funding easier and quicker.
Shipley tells IT World Canada that he’s seeing a lot of interest in clean tech, smart grid technology, and other energy-related innovations in the province.
“Energy efficiency is huge in New Brunswick, and with our history in utilities and companies like Siemens having their global smart grid group based here, these are ideas and innovations that are really good fits for the province,” he says.
But at the end of the day, cybersecurity will still be the biggest conversation going forward.
“The issues of cybersecurity we’re seeing now will get worse in the next decade before they get better. This is what happens every time with tech and people. We invented the groundbreaking Titanic, then got really cocky about it saying we don’t need as many lifeboats as usual, but then hit an iceberg and realize perhaps that confidence was a mistake. We’re at that stage with the Internet, so there’s tremendous opportunity for companies to innovate and help businesses, particularly small and medium sized ones, tackle cybersecurity issues and understand that they’re not just the IT department’s problem,” Shipley highlights.
He believes the next big wave around cybersecurity will be much more about personal security given the rise of IoT, instead of protecting big banks or governments.
Dillon adds that educating people on the risks that come with greater adoption of technology will be key in overcoming such issues, and that starts with changing Canada’s education system to reflect the digital times we now live in.
“We need to become more digitally literate for us to maintain economic prosperity and build an agenda that can hold up in the digital world. CyberNB is actively reaching out and collaborating with ministers of four other provinces, and we’ll continue doing that to share some of the things we’ve done to help our region become more digitally literate, like the Blue Kit,” he concludes. “Let’s take this success and momentum and spread it across Canada so that we’re the most digitally literate, cyber-secure country in the world.”